Though already possessing a cult following from its shorter films, the endearing and highly entertaining duo of Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis), a wacky inventor, and Gromit, Wallace’s silent, prudent, and long-suffering dog, is only now making its first appearance in a full-length feature, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Its visually attractive stop-motion animation and its British wit (fueled by the creative efforts of British animator Nick Park) has received nearly universal critical acclaim. It is indeed quite funny, with well-defined characters and generally well-crafted dialogue. Yet despite a fine opening and a laugh-out-loud conclusion, the film fails to sustain momentum. That’s a serious problem for a film that is a mere 90 minutes long, preceded, I hasten to add, by a painfully tedious short from the Madagascar penguins.
As the film opens, we are shown the beginning of a day in the life of Wallace and Gromit, who run Anti-Pesto, a company that uses non-violent means to remove rabbits from local gardens. The entire house seems to be run by electronic gadgets, giving it the feel of the mad professor’s house in Back to the Future. When Wallace receives a call from the well-connected and refined Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) to secure his services in clearing her property of rabbits in advance of the town’s annual Giant Vegetable competition, Wallace thinks Anti-Pesto has hit the big time. He also quickly falls for Tottington. There is, as one might have guessed, a rival suitor, the imperious Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), who wants to settle the rabbit problem with deliberate force: gunfire.
Lamenting the need to use any force against the rabbits, Lady Tottington says, “They do so love their veggies. It’s in their little bunny natures and you can’t change that, can you?” Ever the experimentalist, Wallace hatches a plan to cure the bunnies of their “anti-social vegetable-ravaging behavior.” Wallace’s scientific attempt at social engineering has unintended, Frankenstein-ish consequences, of the sort now all too common in science-fiction film. Here the theme is played for laughs rather than lessons; indeed, if the film has a lesson, it has something to do with the mysterious, medicinal powers of cheese.
The sudden and destructive appearance of the Were-Rabbit, a huge creature who looks and behaves like a cross between King Kong and the StayPuff Marshmallow giant from Ghostbusters, jeopardizes the success and celebrity of Wallace and Gromit. It is at this point that the most entertaining character in the film comes to the fore, the local vicar, whose name is itself quite humorous. Reverend Hedges (Nicholas Smith), who is as passionate as anyone else about the Veggie competition, prays over his produce and walks about singing “We plow the field and scatter . . .” When his garden is attacked by the Were-Rabbit, in an event the newspapers describe as a “Night of Vegetable Carnage,” the reverend proclaims a coming apocalypse: “By tampering with nature and attempting to grow inordinately large vegetables, we’ve brought a terrible judgment on ourselves.”
The film contains a few double entendres that adults will get and little kids will miss. These are not, however, the sort of lewd allusions that make sane parents squirm and wonder why Hollywood supposes adults need sexual humor to make it through a movie with their kids. In addition to the dialogue and the visuals, the sense of a timeless and winsome world commends Park’s Wallace and Gromit to viewers of all ages. There is something magical about the town created by Park, in a Britain populated by garden-cultivating, cheese-loving citizens with bad teeth–an unusual and endearing combination for Americans accustomed to increasingly stylized high-tech animation.